The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Burnt Sugar
Burnt Sugar
by Avni Doshi

Paperback (15 Mar 2022), 240 pages.
Publisher: The Overlook Press
ISBN-13: 9781419752933

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, a searing literary debut novel set in India about mothers and daughters, obsession and betrayal.

"I would be lying if I say my mother's misery has never given me pleasure," says Antara, Tara's now-adult daughter.

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her marriage to join an ashram, and while Tara is busy as a partner to the ashram's spiritual leader, Baba, little Antara is cared for by an older devotee, Kali Mata, an American who came to the ashram after a devastating loss. Tara also embarks on a stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents) and spends years chasing a disheveled, homeless artist, all with young Antara in tow. But now Tara is forgetting things, and Antara is an adult––an artist and married––and must search for a way to make peace with a past that haunts her as she confronts the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.

Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Burnt Sugar unpicks the slippery, choking cord of memory and myth that binds mother and daughter. Is Tara's memory loss real? Are Antara's memories fair? In vivid and visceral prose, Tibor Jones South Asia Prize–winning writer Avni Doshi tells a story, at once shocking and empathetic, about love and betrayal between a mother and a daughter. A journey into shifting memories, altering identities, and the subjective nature of truth, Burnt Sugar is a stunning and unforgettable debut.

Burnt Sugar

Seven sticks of incense burn by the door. I cough and my mother pops her head out of the kitchen. I can smell that she is frying peanuts with cumin seeds in oil. I slip my feet out of my sneakers, which have stretched at the mouth because they're never unlaced. The floor is cold and smells like lemongrass milk. Light pours in through the east-facing window in the kitchen, and Ma is a silhouette. She dumps a bowl of bloated tapioca balls into the pot and covers it to steam.

'Have you had breakfast?' she asks, and I say I haven't even though I have.

I set the table like we used to, with glasses for water and buttermilk, and no spoon for Ma because she likes to eat with her hands. She brings out chillies, red and powdered, green and chopped. The pot is placed directly on the table, and when she lifts the lid, the cloud that conceals the meal inside evaporates.

I help myself to a large spoonful. The tapioca balls bounce on my plate, leaving a glistening trail behind them.

My mouth fills with a first bite. 'Something is missing.'


'Salt. Potato. Lemon.'

She takes a bite and sits back in her chair, chewing slowly. I wait for her anger, but she gets up and goes into the kitchen. I hear the suction of the refrigerator door separating and meeting, the clanging of utensils. She comes out with a small tray and places it on the table. There is lemon juice and a shaker of salt.

'What about the potato?'

'Sabudana khichdi doesn't have potato.'

'You always make it with potato.'

She pauses. 'No potato this time.'

I push the food on my plate around and look at her.

'Don't keep looking at me like that.'

'You're not taking this seriously.'

She throws her head back and laughs, and I can see creamy tapioca clinging to the dark fillings at the back of her mouth. 'Taking what seriously?'

'Why did you tell Dilip I'm a liar?'

'I never said that.'

It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn't want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I'm brimming with it all the time. I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts, while she grows foggier with each passing day.

She takes another bite. 'They say when the memory starts to go, other faculties become more powerful.'

'What kind of faculties?'

'There are women who can see past lives, who can talk to angels. Some women become clairvoyant.'

'You're mad.' Reaching into my satchel, I pull out my sketchbook. I turn to the last page and add today's date to a list that contains some forty entries. Next to the date, I write the word 'potato'.

Ma squints at the book and shakes her head. 'How does your husband tolerate you?'

'You're not even married, how would you know?'

Her mouth is open as I speak, and for a moment I think she is mouthing my words as I say them. Have we said these exact sentences to each other before? I wait for a reply but the moments pulse by. My armpits are damp and I feel something inside of me rearing up.

She smiles. Her teeth look sharp in the sunlight, and I wonder if she enjoys these moments, has grown to expect them. My heart is beating faster and my breath is shallow. I welcome this too.

She taps my hand and points to the notebook. 'You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.'

I look down at the list, at the careful lines that form each column, before shutting the book soundlessly. On my plate, the tapioca begins to harden. The temperature between us cools. Within minutes, we forget that harsh words have been exchanged.

We mix a few drops of lemon juice in cups of hot water and go out on to the balcony. Ma has hung a dozen hand-washed bras along a clothing line. Some have been patched and mended.

Full Excerpt

Excerpt from the new book Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi published by The Overlook Press © 2021

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. In what ways does Tara go against societal expectations of her as a daughter and wife?
  2. Discuss Tara and Antara's differing memories from their time at the ashram:
    • Tara's recollection of Antara's response to her father: "You used to cry for him day and night, not eat, not drink. Papa, Papa, Papa. He was the only one you wanted... . You made me feel like shit."
    • Antara's recollection of living in the ashram, longing for her mother, despite having Kali Mata as a surrogate, when Tara responds to the news that Antara had not been eating: "She throws me down on the bed, and my head feels the hard wood beneath the mattress. I cry out but Ma has climbed on top of me, is holding me, my arms and legs incapacitated, and the flailing I feel, the pain stops short and tolls back inside, turning over on itself. Her hand hits the side of my face, and like lightening, I see the streak before I hear the sound... . You better eat when you are told."
  3. How does Antara's childhood longing for her mother manifest itself when she is an adult?
  4. The primary relationship in Burnt Sugar is that between Antara and Tara, but there are other parent-offspring relationships portrayed throughout the story. Discuss how they are different or the same.
  5. What holds Dilip and Antara's marriage together?
  6. How is the institution of marriage presented?
  7. Why does Tara have such hatred of Antara's art?
  8. How aware is Tara that she has early-stage Alzheimer's?
  9. "Ma doesn't come to the house often. She says the main hall disturbs her, especially the mirrors that cover each wall, reflecting everything in multiple directions." There are other descriptions of the mirrors in Dilip and Antara's home. Discuss their possible meanings.
  10. What is Antara looking for in her relationship with Reza?
  11. After the birth of her daughter, Anikka, Antara reflects on her relationship with her mother: "Maybe we would have been better off if I had never been diagnosed as her undoing. How do I stop from making the same mistake? How do I protect this little girl from the same burden? Maybe that's impossible? Maybe this is all wishful thinking." How is Antara different from her mother?
  12. Considering Antara's relationship with Purvi and the sexual tension that is part of it, what can be made of Antara's statement, "Suddenly, I don't like having Purvi here, don't want her in the house. She reminds me of too many things we have done together. I don't want her around my daughter."
  13. Are there universal themes in Burnt Sugar about mother-daughter relationships? If so, what are they?
  14. Actual burnt sugar is used in cooking to flavor various dishes, some savory and some sweet. What message about the story is relayed through the title?
  15. How is Pune, India, portrayed?
  16. How is the United States portrayed?

Additional Resources
Antara invokes artist On Kawara to explain her work. Find out more about the highly regarded conceptual artist here:

Guide written by Karen D. Taylor


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of The Overlook Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A searingly elegant novel about memory and the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship molded by trauma and selfishness, captivating in its honesty and acerbic humor.

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It's no surprise that Avni Doshi's debut novel was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Her prose is crisp, clean and brutal from the opening line: "I would be lying if I said my mother's misery has never given me pleasure." In Burnt Sugar, Doshi depicts the relationship between Antara and her mother, Tara, over three decades.

The book is narrated by Antara once she has grown up and Tara has begun to show signs of dementia. It includes flashbacks of Tara's youth and Antara's childhood in Pune, India. As a young woman, Tara is headstrong and rebellious, putting her own needs ahead of those of her daughter. She turns her back on the comfortable life led by her affluent husband and parents to join an ashram, uprooting her infant child and dragging her into a chaotic and abusive existence during her formative years.

As an adult, Antara has adopted many of the conventional comforts that Tara rejected. She and her American-born husband Dilip belong to a private members club and attend dinner parties at the homes of their well-off friends. Tara critiques her daughter's lifestyle and career as an artist, her criticism growing more cutting as her dementia worsens and her lucidity wanes. Meanwhile, Antara grapples with the logistical and emotional hurdles of caring for her mother. The foundations of their relationship are deeply fractured as existing cracks begin to open into chasms that threaten to pull them both in.

Doshi's artful depictions of memory demonstrate how Antara is haunted by an undercurrent of trauma that remains from her turbulent, and sometimes violent, upbringing. Her heartbreaking accounts include her mother's neglect of her as a small child, a stint of being homeless and begging on the street, and a later period of attending a strict Catholic boarding school. Her impressions paint a picture of life in the ashram that is vivid and disturbing in its simultaneous innocence and instability, showing her exposure at a young age to what is referred to as a free love lifestyle and sensual hedonism. While Doshi never directly states this, the community of the ashram resembles a movement led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, which originated in Pune (see Beyond the Book).

In the ashram, Antara is taken under the wing of an American devotee known as Kali Mata, who serves as an affectionate maternal figure. In her role as a substitute mother, Kali Mata does not entirely replace Tara, and it becomes clear that she is filling the emotional void left by her own deceased children through her relationship with Antara. However, the two maintain a connection even after Antara leaves the ashram with her mother. Antara's recollections of Kali Mata, who has passed away by the time the book opens, show that parental care and affection can be given by people other than actual parents.

At the core of the novel is a juxtaposition of care. Tara's neglect of Antara is apparent in her emotional, and often physical, absence. Later, Antara is faced with caring for Tara, a responsibility the older woman eschewed undertaking for her. The relationship between the two is cloaked in the illusions and perceptions they each have about what they owe to one another. When Tara's dementia threatens her physical safety, Antara experiments with bringing her mother into her own home. This forces her to lift the veil on the carefully balanced pretenses she has been living with:

She doesn't say more, but I sense she is thinking, I won't be here for long. We haven't discussed whether this is a trial run for an impending event or an adult slumber party, and I think it might be better that both of us continue with our separate illusions. But when the small canvas bag she has brought with her gapes open and we discover that she has forgotten her toothbrush, medicine, underwear and nightgown, I realize that one of us at least must be clear-headed and perhaps the time for my illusions is past.

For those who are mothers, or are contemplating the idea of motherhood, Burnt Sugar may dredge up insecurities, guilt and shortcomings. Antara's own insecurities appear throughout the book and include her concern that she, too, will be unable to control her impulses, and that she will parent as poorly as her mother. While disquieting, however, the novel is surprisingly light in parts, with Doshi infusing wry humor at well-timed moments in her depiction of the nuances of the mother-daughter relationship. At one point, it becomes clear that Tara is aware of her daughter's fears after a doctor's visit for which Antara has diligently studied information about dementia in order to have a detailed discussion with her mother's physician. Tara chastises Antara for her focus:

She taps my hand and points to the notebook. 'You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.'

While deeply feminine in its complexities, Burnt Sugar will touch anybody who has experienced a parental bond. It will make readers contemplate their own parental relationships, or lack thereof, and quietly celebrate that maternal figures come in many different forms.

Reviewed by Daniela Schofield

New York Journal of Books
Burnt Sugar is an incredible novel with messages and characters that remain with its reader far beyond the final line. In this sometimes humorous, sometimes dark, always ephemeral piece of literature, Avni Doshi unspools an original take on the theme of inheritance—what we take on willingly and unwillingly.

Washington Post
Burnt Sugar is a work of extraordinary insight, courage and sophistication.

Daily Mail (UK)
Doshi's visceral debut is a no-holds-barred excavation of how hate can both poison and sustain.

The Daily Telegraph (UK)
A corrosive, compulsive debut.

The Sunday Times (UK)
Doshi's prose is arresting and her ideas fiercely intelligent.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Dark emotions color a daughter's complex connection to her mother in a striking first novel that delves deep into family bonds...A landmark portrait of toxic parenting and its tangled aftermath

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[S]tunning...Doshi's portrayal of troubled mother-daughter intimacy is viscerally poetic. This has the heft and expansiveness of a classic 19th-century novel.

The Guardian
Burnt Sugar is an unsettling, sinewy debut, startling in its venom and disarming in its humor from the very first sentence.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic
Avni Doshi is a writer of surgical precision and sharp intelligence. This novel of mother-and-daughter resentments and the deep, intimate cuts of ancient family history gleams like a blade—both dangerous and beautiful. I loved it.

Author Blurb Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Starling Days
Raw, wise, and cuttingly funny.

Author Blurb Tishani Doshi, author of Small Days and Nights
A courageous novel written in spare, gleaming sentences. It made me hold my breath and gather it up again.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Jo Quantrill
Memory mothers maternity and more
I found this book challenging due to personal experience of a mother with dementia and I am also over 65. But I’m glad I read it. Family relationships, women’s place in past and present India, cultural differences with America, the problems and upheaval of childbirth and much more. The characters are well and honestly drawn and I could empathise with them all. I want to read more from this author and think it deserved the Booker nomination.

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The Rajneesh Movement

Followers lined up as Rajneesh drives by, 1982 Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, was born on December 11, 1931 in Kuchwada, India as Chandra Mohan Jain. He was given the name Rajneesh, meaning "god of night," at six months. He took an interest in religion from a young age and eventually found work as a philosophy instructor, but in 1966 resigned from his position at the University of Jabalpur to become a guru and teach meditation. In the early 1970s, he began to induct followers into the order of sannyasis, Hindus who renounce wealth and possessions. However, while sannyasis are traditionally associated with ascetic practices and strict self-discipline, Rajneesh encouraged his followers to enjoy worldly pleasures, without being attached to material goods. In 1971, he took on the title "Bhagwan," a Hindu word meaning "lord" used as a term of address for gurus. (The "Shree" in his name is an Indian word denoting wealth and prosperity that is commonly used as an honorific.) He propagated a practice that he termed "dynamic meditation," designed to connect individuals with the divine. In doing so, he cultivated an international following, becoming a beloved spiritual leader to some and a reviled cult figurehead to others.

In 1974, Rajneesh established a headquarters at an ashram in Pune (pronounced POO-nuh, a city in western India about 90 miles southeast of Mumbai). Here, he offered dynamic meditation along with New Age healing underpinned by a liberal approach to sexuality. He styled his teachings with a blend of Western philosophy, Eastern mysticism and, perhaps most notoriously, free love. This eclectic spiritual cocktail held appeal for Indians and foreigners alike. People began to flock to the ashram in Pune and clad themselves in the characteristic orange garments of his followers. Adherents often abandoned their entire lives to relocate to Pune, sometimes bringing their children with them.

By the end of the decade, Rajneesh's movement had grown and he was involved in legal disputes for a variety of reasons, including unpaid taxes. In 1981, he relocated his base to a derelict ranch in eastern Oregon in the United States. The movement's location was incorporated as a city named Rajneeshpuram, which aspired to be a utopian, self-sufficient commune. While outwardly Rajneesh's message to his followers was to live peacefully and in harmony with one another and their natural surroundings, there was a dark side to the operations of Rajneeshpuram. The leader and those close to him kept a tight rein on the members of the commune, who were sometimes forced to donate significant amounts of money. As Rajneesh and his advisors continued to seek control over Rajneeshpuram and the surrounding community, they resorted to increasingly drastic means.

In one incident, followers were incited to poison people by scattering bacteria on salad bars in the Oregon city of The Dalles in a bid to influence county-level elections. Although nobody perished, the event resulted in the poisoning of 751 people, 45 of whom had to be hospitalized, and remains the largest bioterror attack in American history. The resulting widespread illness was initially blamed on bad restaurant hygiene. Authorities later discovered the truth in an investigation of the commune, but only after Rajneesh and his associates had fled because their movement had come under scrutiny for a number of suspected crimes including arson, drug smuggling, voter fraud and attempted murder. The tensions between Rajneeshpuram and the local Oregonians, many of whom came to view the commune as a cult, are explored in the 2018 Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country.

Rajneesh was deported from the US in 1985 after pleading guilty to immigration fraud. Upon his return to Pune, his ashram continued to attract followers. Shortly before his death, in 1989, Rajneesh began going by the name Osho. After he died in 1990, his followers continued to subscribe to his teachings and his movement endured. The original ashram in Pune has been maintained and expanded and is now known as the Osho International Meditation Resort. There are additional Osho meditation centers practicing his teachings in over 50 countries.

Followers lined up as Rajneesh drives by in Rajneeshpuram in the summer of 1982. © 2003 Samvado Gunnar Kossatz

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By Daniela Schofield

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